Novel genomic approaches for the identification of virulence genes and drug targets in pathogenic bacteria
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While the many completely sequenced genomes of bacterial pathogens contain all the determinants of the host-pathogen interaction, and also every possible drug target and recombinant vaccine candidate, computational tools for selecting suitable candidates for further experimental analyses are limited to date. The overall objective of my PhD project was to attempt to design reusable systems that employ the two most important features of bacterial evolution, horizontal gene transfer and adaptive mutation, for the identification of potentially novel virulence-associated factors and possible drug targets. In this dissertation, I report the development of two novel technologies that uncover novel virulence-associated factors and mechanisms employed by bacterial pathogens to effectively inhabit the host niche. More importantly, I illustrate that these technologies may present a reliable starting point for the development of screens for novel drug targets and vaccine candidates, significantly reducing the time for the development of novel therapeutic strategies. Our initial analyses of proteins predicted from the preliminary genomic sequences released by the Sanger Center indicated that a significant number appeared to be more similar to eukaryotic proteins than to their bacterial orthologs. In order determine whether acquisition of genetic material from eukaryotes has played a role in the evolution of pathogenic bacteria, we developed a system that detects genes in a bacterial genome that have been acquired by interkingdom horizontal gene transfer.. Initially, 19 eukaryotic genes were identified in the genome of Mycobacterium tuberculosis of which 2 were later found in the genome of Pseudomonas aeruginosa, along with two novel eukaryotic genes.Surprisingly, six of the M. tuberculosis genes and all four eukaryotic genes in P. aeruginosa may be involved in modulating the host immune response through altering the steroid balance and the production of pro-inflammatory lipids. We also compared the genome of the H37Rv M. tuberculosis strain to that of the CDC- 1551 strain that was sequenced by TIGR and found that the organisms were virtually identical with respect to their gene content, and hypothesized that the differences in virulence may be due to evolved differences in shared genes, rather than the absence/presence of unique genes. Using this observation as rationale, we developed a system that compares the orthologous gene complements of two strains of a bacterial species and mines for genes that have undergone adaptive evolution as a means to identify possibly novel virulence –associated genes. By applying this system to the genome sequences of two strains of Helicobacter pylori and Neisseria meningitidis, we identified 41 and 44 genes that are under positive selection in these organisms, respectively. As approximately 50% of the genes encode known or potential virulence factors, the remaining genes may also be implicated in virulence or pathoadaptation. Furthermore, 21 H. pylori genes, none of which are classic virulence factors or associated with a pathogenicity island, were tested for a role in colonization by gene knockout experiments. Of these, 61% were found to be either essential, or involved in effective stomach colonization in a mouse infection model. A significant amount of strong circumstantial and empirical evidence is thus presented that finding genes under positive selection is a reliable method of identifying novel virulence-associated genes and promising leads for drug targets.